Salman Rushdie believed his life was “very normal again” and that fears of an attack were a thing of the past, he had told an interviewer just two weeks before he was stabbed on stage in New York on Friday.
The novelist, who remained in hospital on Saturday, was stabbed several times, including in the neck and abdomen. His agent, Andrew Wylie, said his liver had been damaged and that he was likely to lose an eye.
His alleged attacker, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, has been charged with attempted murder and assault.
Rushdie, 75, had been speaking at a literary festival at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York state about the importance of America giving asylum to exiled writers when he was assaulted.
Matar, who had bought a ticket, allegedly rushed on stage and stabbed Rushdie before being tackled by spectators, institution staff and two local law enforcement officers providing security.
Rushdie had been under a fatwa calling for his death since 1989, when the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued it in response to the Indian-born author’s controversial novel The Satanic Verses. The Iranian regime has since sought to distance itself from the fatwa, but the price on Rushdie’s head has increased in recent years to more than $3m.
Many Muslims viewed Rushdie’s book as blasphemous because – among other things – it included a character that they interpreted as an insult to the prophet Muhammad, the founder of their faith.
The Satanic Verses was published a decade before Matar was born to parents who emigrated from Lebanon. But, according to reports, his social media activity suggests an admiration of Iran and an attraction to Shia extremism.
Just a fortnight ago, Rushdie had talked to the German news magazine Stern about his safety. The author said his life would have been in a lot more danger if social media had been around at the time he wrote The Satanic Verses: “More dangerous, infinitely more dangerous”.
“A fatwa is a serious thing. Luckily we didn’t have the internet back then. The Iranians had sent the fatwa to the mosques by fax. That’s all a long time ago. Nowadays my life is very normal again.” Asked what made him afraid now, Rushdie said: “In the past I would have said religious fanaticism. I no longer say that. The biggest danger facing us right now is that we lose our democracy. Since the supreme court abortion verdict I have been seriously concerned that the US won’t manage that. That the problems are irreparable and the country will break apart. Today’s greatest danger facing us is this kind of cryptofascism that we see in America and elsewhere.
“Oh, we live in scary times. That’s true even though I always tell people: don’t be afraid. But the bad thing is that death threats have become more normal. Not only politicians get them, even American teachers who take certain books off the syllabus.
“Look at how many guns there are in America. The existence of all these weapons in itself is scary. I think a lot of people today live with similar threats to the ones I had back then. And the fax machines they used against me is like a bicycle rather than a Ferrari compared with the internet.”
He said he was happy his books were being reviewed on the arts pages rather than in the political sections of the newspapers.
Stern asked him what his advice was for people who were scared of where the world is heading: “I believe something very good is happening in the young generation: it is much more inclined to activism. We are seeing a generation grow of age that we urgently need right now, a combative one. We need people who can organize themselves, and people who are prepared to fight. Fighters. For a society worth living in. Instead of hoping things turn out for the best. As an author I also notice that young authors are becoming role models again – instead of the way it used to be, namely just the dead ones.”
Questions were being asked yesterday about how Matar gained access to the event. Paul Susko, a lawyer based in Erie – the town in Pennsylvania where Rushdie is now on a ventilator at UPMC Hamot hospital – said that participants were prevented from bringing in food and drink to the hall but that was all.
“There was screening to prevent attendees from bringing in a cup of coffee,” Susko said. He added that “maybe screening for weapons” with wand or walk-through metal detectors “would have been more helpful”.
Susko, who came to the event with his son, was in the front row on the side of the stage where Matar rushed at the author. “There was no security stopping us from getting to the stage,” Susko said. “There was zero security visible around the stage at the time of the attack.”
Several people in the audience said that Matar was dressed in black and wearing a mask. “We thought perhaps it was part of a stunt to show that there’s still a lot of controversy around this author,” said witness Kathleen Jones. “But it became evident in a few seconds that it wasn’t.”
Chautauqua Institution began life as a summer camp for Sunday school teachers and grew into a major hub of cultural exchange and dialogue. Hours after the attack, the institution’s president, Michael Hill, said the site had seen nothing like it in almost 150 years of existence.
He said: “We were founded to bring people together in community, to learn and in doing so to create solutions, to develop empathy and to take on intractable problems. Today, we are called to take on fear and the worst of all human traits: hate.”
Hill confirmed that Matar had a ticket for the event “the same way any other patron would have”. He stressed that the institution was open to everyone, as part of its mission of inclusivity.
Asked whether there should have been beefed-up security with metal detectors present, given the sensitivities around Rushdie, he said: “We are proud of the security we have.”
Discussions were held before Friday’s talk between state and local police and the institution, and two police officers were assigned – a state trooper and a local deputy. Eugene Staniszewski of the New York state police told a press conference that law enforcement had talks with the institution at the beginning of the season.
“There were some high-profile events they had requested some law enforcement presence to be there, and luckily they were,” he said. The governor of New York state, Kathy Hochul, praised the trooper for his actions. “It was a state police officer who stood up and saved his life, protected him as well as the moderator who was attacked,” she said.
Rushdie had no security of his own. When asked whether the organizers should have made efforts to filter attendees entering the premises, Hill vehemently disagreed.
“Our mission is to build bridges across differences,” he said. “Mr. Rushdie is known as one of the most significant champions for freedom of speech. One of the worst things that Chautauqua could do is back away from its mission.”